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Awards honor students entrepreneurial accomplishments

Lisa Getzler-Linn, director of the Lehigh Entrepreneurs Network and associate director of Lehigh’s popular Integrated Product Development program, at the recent Next STEP awards.

Mike McCreary ’07 was a college graduate all of two months before his Lehigh Valley Grand Prix opened to rave reviews last summer. Now, just a half year later, he’s sending a few standout drivers to the 2008 World Karting Association Championships.

McCreary never doubted that his idea for a world-class karting facility would win over racing enthusiasts in eastern Pennsylvania. Neither did the judges of the Joan F. & John M. Thalheimer ’55 Student Entrepreneurs Competition, which he won last year.

Rob Sandie’s story isn’t all that different: The 2006 Lehigh graduate and fellow competition grand prize winner spent what little time he had his senior year networking with investors and building some buzz for Viddler, his online video sharing site.

He and Donna DeMarco G’06 have since built the fledgling start-up into an online powerhouse. Nine employees and 35,000 registered members later, the Web site is finding new audiences and applications at a time when video sharing has become a standard fix for any Web aficionado.

McCreary, Sandie and DeMarco are banking on long-term success for their new ventures, both of which have set up shop in the Lehigh Valley. The commitment to their entrepreneurial roots was recognized this past Friday by the Lehigh Entrepreneurs Network and the Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ) program, which honored the recent graduates at the third annual Next STEP Awards: Success Through Entrepreneurship in Pennsylvania.

“The increased strength of this year’s entries speaks volumes about the enthusiasm, energy and intellect of the student entrepreneurs. The depth of the KIZ/University partnership makes all of this success possible,” said Steve Melnick, executive director of the Southside Bethlehem KIZ.

Lehigh's entrepreneurial initiatives have gained momentum of late. Not only does the university offer a portfolio of programs that span each of its four colleges, but it also has an extensive network of community partners that is elevating Lehigh's stature among the entrepreneurial community. A new Web site planned for the spring will outline that infrastructure and spotlight the experiences of Lehigh students like McCreary, Sandie and DeMarco.

An award-winning experience

McCreary captured the Student Entrepreneurial Company of the Year award, while Sandie and DeMarco received the Start-Up of the Year. They’re among the growing number of members in the Lehigh Entrepreneurs Network, which has more that doubled in the last four years.

“Entrepreneurship is really at the heart of what a Lehigh education is all about, which is why we’re seeing such an incredible interest in our programs and activities highlighted here today,” says Lisa Getzler-Linn, director of the Lehigh Entrepreneurs Network and associate director of Lehigh’s popular Integrated Product Development program.

“We have a tremendous infrastructure in place here at Lehigh and are fortunate to have a team of community partners, like KIZ, to give our students a chance to bring their ideas to life. That’s really what we’re celebrating with these awards,” she says.

Also at the event, fellow entrepreneur John M. Thalheimer, who endowed the Joan F. and John M. Thalheimer ’55 Entrepreneurship Ventures Endowed Program Fund in 2006 and has been a champion for Lehigh’s entrepreneurial culture over the years, won the prestigious Farrington Award for Outstanding Commitment to Entrepreneurship.

Thalheimer was jointly honored by Paul Brown, dean of the College of Business and Economics, and S. David Wu, dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

“John Thalheimer truly embodies the commitment and dedication to entrepreneurship that we try to instill in our students, whatever their passions may be,” says Brown. “He has helped to shape Lehigh’s entrepreneurial culture in ways that will have a long and lasting impact.”

George Keeler ’09, the grand prize winner at the 2008 Joan F. & John M. Thalheimer ’55 Student Entrepreneurs Competition, talks with Lehigh provost Mohamed El-Aasser.

All three award winners were on hand at Zoellner Arts Center for an awards reception that included past Next STEP honorees and regional business leaders. Getzler-Linn and Melnick co-hosted the event, which also featured a keynote address by Lehigh alum Scott Belair ’69, co-founder of Urban Outfitters, Inc.

Also recognized at the event were the winners of the 2008 Joan F. & John M. Thalheimer ’55 Student Entrepreneurs Competition, including:

• George Keeler ’09, who captured the grand prize for his multifunctional G-paK backpack. Keeler won $5,000 and a trip to participate in the Advanced Invention to Venture Workshop in New Mexico earlier this winter.

• Greg Capece ’10, Mike Harm ’10 and Nick Rocha ’10 for Plug Away, a product designed to assist elderly persons with arthritis or weak grip strength. The undergraduates received $3,000 for their plan.

• Madison Berndt ’08 and Mike Gioia ’08 for spotsie.com, a social networking Web site connecting landlords with students and individual renters. Berndt and Gioia earned $2,000 for their Web site.

Five Lehigh students also received honorable mentions in the Thalheimer Student Entrepreneurship Competition: Matt Scheller ’08, Will Brehm ’08, Joseph Varco ’09, David Schlump ’07, G’08, and Tyler Susko ’07, G’08. Each earned $500 and will participate in an Entrepreneurship & Innovation Bootcamp, a workshop that pairs Lehigh students with local entrepreneurs, who will help them refine their business plans and models.

The competition had its biggest year to date in 2008. Of the 22 proposals submitted, 12 were selected as finalists and 7 were awarded a total of $12,000 in seed funding.

The KIZ program was established by the state in 2004 to promote job growth by supporting community-university partnerships and by creating enterprise zones around universities. The Southside Bethlehem KIZ, which receives funding from the state Department of Community and Economic Development, was one of the first KIZ sites to be approved and is one of 16 in the state.

“The cooperation between Lehigh University, the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, and all of our other 11 members make it possible for the student entrepreneurs to excel, and that excellence and success create ripples across the Commonwealth,” says Melnick.

--Tom Yencho

Posted on Tuesday, February 05, 2008

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